Cultural norms that define successful workplaces

Successful workplaces need a strong culture
Workplace culture can be one of the biggest drivers of workplace cohesion and success. | Photo: Jacob Wackerhausen (iStock)

By Shane Rodgers

When I was at school, I went to watch my sister in an interschool debate. The topic was that “there is no Australian culture”.

I was about 12 at the time. The thing I found most interesting was listening to the teams try to define the word culture. Culture is one of those curious things that doesn’t exist in a box; you can’t draw it or photograph it. It is a collection of things that leaves behind a residual that is real, but not tangible.

You could well argue that the cultures we live and work in are some of the most important influences on our lives. But where do they come from? Can we influence them? Who really drives them?

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has a basic explanation of culture, defined as “the way of life of a people, including their attitudes, values, beliefs, arts, sciences, modes of perception, and habits of thought and activity.” That is a fairly useful definition and demonstrates just how many aspects of life feed into this thing we call culture.

The second part of the definition is even more interesting. It suggests that cultural behaviours are learned but “are often too persuasive to be readily noticed from within”.

Therein lies the challenge for workplaces. We spend a lot of time in contemporary corporations working on strategy. Yet we all accept the cliché that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

My observation from working in about 20 different workplaces over the course of my career is that culture is the main driver of an organisation’s long-term success.

I have also been astounded at the power of culture to bend human behaviours and lull people into norms that are completely at odds with their personal values and beliefs.

Fighting culture can be exhausting. After a while people start accepting workplace attitudes and the ways things are done without any written protocols or sets of rules. Humans tend to conform to behaviour in these circumstances, even if they are uncomfortable with it. When we are in work cultures that mess with our values, we tend to be steadily dying inside and resenting ourselves.

It can be equally stressful in workplaces that have multiple, powerful cultures. This is remarkably common and results in the formation of powerful factions where like-minded people form blocs and use their numbers to manipulate the organisation towards their own world view.

In the worst cases, CEOs and senior leaders find themselves with constantly conflicting advice and a lot of energy and productivity wasted on backroom lobbying rather than healthy, robust front room debates.

For me the healthiest workplaces have a single, all-pervasive culture that can accommodate multiple, different voices that bring diverse perspectives and meaningful advocacy.

To borrow from Shakespeare, the best workplaces are a stage where everyone must play a part. We are all part of one performance but we each have an important role. There are different advocates for people, spending restraint, courageous risks, technology needs, competitive factors and the big picture. Through that, the whole becomes greater than a sum of the parts.

Great cultures also tend to have leadership teams that accept and publicly support the final decisions made by the organisation, even when they have a differing view. In toxic cultures, people work to undermine decisions that are contrary to their views, and delight in saying “I told you so” when it does not work out. Great cultures own decisions and outcomes regardless of how they work out.

Really great cultures defend and articulate the views of people who are not in the room, even when the person talking does not agree with the views. This is because they value the collective input and the quality of the final decision ahead of self-interest and winning an argument.

Great workplace cultures have something of an unspoken central idea and mindset that can accommodate a wide range of robust views. There is a set of shared values and goals that everyone buys into. And there is an innate ability for the organisation to find the things that unite it rather than dwelling on the things that divide.

In my experience, the following attributes have defined workplaces and organisations with exemplary culture.

  • They only hire people who share the values and contribute to the culture.
  • They provide a genuine, safe environment where people feel empowered to have an opinion. There are genuine robust conversations and debate without anyone feeling insulted.
  • They have leaders with the confidence to trust and delegate.
  • Innovation is a mindset rather than a “thing” that needs to be discussed.
  • The organisation genuinely cares about its people and recognises that they are humans with foibles and faults.
  • People work really hard, but the company recognises that employees have a life outside of work. People feel empowered to go home and shut off work at the end of the day.

So, back to my sister’s school debate on whether there is an Australian culture. Her team had the affirmative side and argued that there was not “an” (as in one) Australian culture, but many. They won.

I disagreed with the argument because multiple cultures can still create a single collective culture with its own, unique attributes. But their approach did highlight the multiple voices and backgrounds that come together to form a collective.

As the song We Are Australian goes, “we are one, but we are many…we share a dream and sing with one voice.” In any situation, bringing different people together to sing with one voice feels powerful and comforting. Being part of a great culture is a truly uplifting experience.

This article is an extract from the book Worknado – Reimaging the way you work to live